Every year, the lead-up to Halloween brings a new crop of would-be franchise-starters attempting to be the next, well, “Halloween.” They spring up like so many pumpkin patches, most of which go rotten faster than everyone’s favorite seasonal gourd. “Hell Fest” is no exception, and it’s certainly attempting an understandable, seasonably appropriate trick. With hints of a built-in mythos and clear intentions of a sequel in which the designated final girl (Amy Forsyth) lives to fight another day, Gregory Plotkin’s slasher aspires to be something new and exciting but ends up as disposable as its victims. “Halloween” this is not, however much it would love to be.
The setup has some promise, not that it’s fulfilled: Natalie (Forsyth) visits her BFF (Reign Edwards) after time away due to recent difficulties that, for whatever reason, are never actually disclosed in any meaningful way. Said bestie has scored VIP passes to Hell Fest, a traveling Halloween carnival that’s said to be especially extreme, along with two other friends and a boy who may or may not be into Natalie. You can probably take it from there, and suffice to say that the film never rises above its familiar premise.
“Hell Fest” comes close to distinguishing itself with its villain, who may be the most realistic slasher yet: a creep who responds to the slightest rejection by following women around and attempting to victimize them. Here that comes in the form of donning an expressionless mask at the carnival-esque park and, after encountering our heroine (who mistakes him for a park employee and dismisses his schtick as lame), zeroes in on her for the rest of the night. Most of Natalie’s friends, as is always the case in these movies, exist solely to raise the body count with ghoulish death scenes that don’t even satisfy on a guilty-pleasure level.
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Realism aside, this nameless foe is uniquely unfrightening. He signals his murderous intent by balling his fist à la the Arthur meme, complements his mask with a nondescript black hoodie, and lumbers about with less purpose than his many predecessors. The result is less scary than the kind of amusement park “Hell Fest” is set in, even if the first two-thirds essentially feel like a simulation of walking through one — our tour of Hell Fest itself is exhaustive, even exhausting, making this the rare midnight movie that’s more likely to put you to sleep than scare you.
We don’t learn much about the killer, but one key detail that shan’t be revealed here suggests he’s less of an anomaly than you might expect. Wearing a mask offers the same kind of anonymity that a keyboard does, and people reveal their true selves when their actions are divorced from their faces and their names — some spew their bile in 280 characters or fewer, while others terrorize teenagers with a knife.
Natalie catches onto this before anyone else, and is met with indifference and disbelief by the older male security guard to whom she reports her traumatic experience. That interaction is significantly less disturbing than yesterday’s senate hearing, even if the takeaway is the same, and hints at what the film might have been. A generous reading suggests that its vaguely feminist subtext is intentional rather than a happy accident, and to some extent it may well be, but for the most part “Hell Fest” simply adheres to long-established genre tropes.
If it were any good, it could have been the movie of the moment. Instead, it’ll have been forgotten by Halloween.
“Hell Fest” is now playing in theaters.